One of the more difficult parables of Jesus is the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. It begins with a king sending out invitations to his son’s wedding (twice), but when the invited guests refuse to come to the wedding and mistreat the king’s messengers the king sends his troops to destroy their city. He then instructs his servants to invite all and sundry, ‘good and bad,’ to the wedding. There is a strange twist at the end when the king notices someone at the wedding feast who was not appropriately dressed and he instructs his servants to “bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It certainly is a strange parable.
A ‘traditional’ interpretation of the parable is to treat it as an allegory: the king is God, his son is Jesus, the wedding feast is the eschatological banquet which represents (in apocalyptic language) the kingdom of God, the people initially invited to the wedding but who declined the invitation are the Jews, the ‘all and sundry’ who are subsequently invited are the Gentiles who convert to Christianity, and the city which is destroyed is Jerusalem (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE). This interpretation, however, poses several problems.
First, it is anti-Jewish, and this is uncharacteristic of the Gospel of Matthew. Second, it makes God to be an angry tyrant who forces people to do his bidding. Third, it offers no explanation for why the guests who were initially invited turned down the invitation. Fourth, it leaves unexplained the problem of who the person is who is inappropriately dressed and what this means as part of the allegory.
A better explanation, in my view, is one recently offered by Marie Hause.1 Hause reads this parable against the background of of the Roman occupation of Judea and in the context of other sayings by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel about non-resistance to violence. She thinks that the king in the parable represents the tyrannical and exploitative rule of the Romans, forcing the occupied Judeans to do their bidding and to accept their legitimacy. Those who rejected this authority through violent means (depicted as beating the king’s servants in the parable) paid a heavy price for their violent resistance to oppression with destruction of towns and cities and mass crucifixions. The ‘good and bad’ who were later invited to the wedding represent those who did not resist and may even have benefitted from collaboration with the Romans (such as the religious leadership). The guest who refused to wear appropriate clothing constitutes a passive non-violent challenge to the king’s authority. He is thrown out of the wedding, but not killed like the initial invitees who resisted with violence. He is actually the central character of the parable. Hause argues that “even though the wedding guest is ejected from the hall, through his liminal action he succeeds in refusing to support the king without participating in a further injustice like the killing of the slaves.”
This interpretation is consistent with the emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel on nonviolent resistance to domination and is in line with Jesus’ sayings about turning the other cheek and walking two miles when a Roman soldier has conscripted you to walk one. In Matthew 5:39 Jesus says “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Unlike Luke’s version which has “if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also,” Matthew explicitly mentions being struck on the right cheek – a back-handed slap or insult – followed by turning the left cheek, inviting a close-fisted punch. Jesus could either be saying “if someone insults you, you may as well invite them to punch you, because oppression always gets worse”, or “if someone abuses you take some nonviolent action which exposes their exploitation.” In Hause’s words, “the guest’s refusal to wear a wedding robe passively and silently but powerfully denounces oppression by refusing to celebrate it.”
I personally find this explanation convincing, as it removes the difficulties in the ‘traditional’ explanation and provides an explanation which is consistent with the emphasis of Matthew’s Gospel.
- Hause, Marie. “The Parable of the Wedding Protest: Matthew 22:1–14 and Nonviolent Resistance,” Pages 49-61 in The (De)Legitimization of Violence in Sacred and Human Contexts. Edited by Muhammad Shafiq and Thomas Donlin-Smith. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2021. Hause acknowledges that her interpretation is influenced by the earlier work by Herzog, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.